Utah: A Mormon Scholar Meets Latter-Day Libertarians
By Matthew Bowman | May 1, 2012
In March, I found myself in Bountiful, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City. There, in the classrooms and gymnasiums of Millcreek Junior High School, I gathered with area Republicans to watch their 2012 caucus. It’s a meaningful quirk that both Republican Party precincts and the wards of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) are organized geographically, and tend to overlap somewhat, though no one planned this. As the caucus-goers began to elect secretaries and delegates and chairs, they chatted with the people they sit next to in the pews on Sunday. Their language easily slipped from one dialect to another. Apologizing for a mistake in procedure, the precinct organizer Michael Bierwolf confessed, “I’m a choir director in my ward, and I always tell them to sing in spite of me.”
Most candidates hoping to be elected delegates to the state convention—where Utah’s Republicans choose their nominees—professed loyalty to their precinct and promised to abide by the wishes of their neighbors. Their speeches were populist, not ideological, indicative of community loyalty more than ideological advocacy.
But a little after nine o’clock in the evening, a burly man in his early 30s stepped forward and broke this mold. “I am a lover of the Constitution,” said Rob Higginson, wrenching his audience out of the congenial community gathering they had been enjoying. “Whatever problems we have in our society and culture and economy come from violation of the Constitution,” he said. “We need leaders who adhere to the ideas of the founders as laid out in the Constitution.” Higginson turned the discussion toward a distinctively libertarian, but also LDS, vernacular, invoking the Mormon tradition that the Constitution’s authors benefited from divine inspiration. Higginson’s audience, mostly Latter-day Saints, gave his speech polite applause. And when they cast their ballots, Higginson ended up as an alternate delegate, having garnered the fourth-most votes in an eleven-person field.
Higginson’s speech reflects a movement that some of its advocates call “Latter-day libertarianism.” Rejecting the socially conservative bent of many of their brethren, these LDS libertarians believe that their faith requires a government that maximizes liberty at home and abroad. While one adherent told me he knew perhaps a thousand Latter-day libertarians, they remain a small, albeit boisterous bunch. In late March, a group of them erected a billboard in Orem, Utah, advertising a website that used Mormon teachings to condemn hawkish foreign policy. They have deemed their co-religionist Mitt Romney a big government conservative. They criticize his tough talk on Iran and his Massachusetts healthcare plan. And during Nevada’s GOP primary in February, members of “Mormons for Ron Paul” handed out pins, which read, “Mormons don’t let Mormons vote for Mitt Romney.”
Now, make no mistake: Romney’s support among the Latter-day Saints is wide and deep. According to a January 2012 Pew Forum poll, nearly two thirds of Mormons who identify as Democrats have a favorable opinion of the man. His numbers among Republican Mormons are ridiculously high, some 94 percent. But while most Mormons seem to like Mitt in part because he is a member of the tribe, some, like Higginson, are all the more disappointed in him because of that. Mitt, they believe, should know better.
In Provo, Utah, I had lunch with Connor Boyack, a web developer, amateur political economist and the author of Latter-day Liberty: A Gospel Approach to Government and Politics. When I asked him about his fellow Mormons Romney and Jon Huntsman, Boyack shook his head and said, “I don’t think they approach their public policy from any sort of religious framework.” There was only one candidate he could support: “A lot of Latter-day Saint libertarians recognize that Ron Paul’s political positions come closer to what our faith requires us to support than Mitt Romney’s.”
Boyack and his fellows at the caucus may seem like run-of-the-mill Paul fans. But their form of libertarianism is far from typical. Boyack dismisses any association with the official Libertarian Party: “I don’t think it’s much of their focus to say, ‘Mormons, come over here,’” he says. In fact, Utah has been less likely to support libertarian candidates for office, unlike other Rocky Mountain states such as Idaho or Colorado. And Utah’s official Libertarian Party remains relatively small. This does not bother Boyack; he believes that Latter-day libertarianism should formulate its own identity.
Boyack and other Mormon libertarians argue that their preferred policy choices are not merely political. They are theological, rooted in a particular interpretation of Mormon teachings about how the cosmos operates. Their devotion to Ron Paul is not simply a reasoned decision about which of several political platforms might be best for the country. It is, in the fullest sense of the word, religious. That adjective should not be taken as a synonym for fanatical or cultish. Rather, it is to say that Connor Boyack believes that if Ron Paul (who is, let’s remember not a Mormon) is elected president, American politics might fall into greater harmony with God’s will, and thus human freedom, potential and happiness will have the opportunity to be most fully realized.
These beliefs are the product of a certain systematized form of Mormon theology. The salvation story all Mormons are taught while they are young rests on a narrative of progress: the human soul’s journey from a pre-existent state through earth life to exaltation, the achievement of divinity in eons to come. What philosophers call “libertarian free will,” Mormon theology calls “agency.” With agency, humans have unfettered capacity for making free choices. Neither original sin nor biological determinism can sway them. Mormon doctrine teaches that one’s “eternal progression” is contingent upon learning from wrong choices, succeeding with right choices and gradually refining the soul and character toward heavenly purity.
Mormon scriptures outline this story. Mormons believe God promised human beings, before their life on earth, that they would be free to choose right or wrong. This meant, of course, that some spirits would go astray. Satan rose in opposition to God’s plan and promised, enigmatically, that he could ensure “one soul shall not be lost.” But this was not so nice a deal as it sounded; his promise required that Satan “destroy the agency of men,” according to Mormon scripture. Satan’s rebellion sparked a conflict Mormons call “the war in heaven,” and ultimately the devil was cast from the presence of God and the creation went forward apace.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a pair of Mormon political theologians seized upon this story and built atop it an interpretation of global geopolitics—all for the sake of liberty. Cleon Skousen taught at Brigham Young University for nearly two decades. Ezra Taft Benson, an apostle in the church, became President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture. Both men believed it a religious duty to confront the challenge of communism, and wrote and spoke extensively on its creeping threat to audiences within and without the church. To their Mormon audiences, Skousen and Benson spoke a specialized language. They invoked traditional Mormon teachings about the inspiration of the Constitution. But they also invoked Mormon theology of agency. Benson declared the confrontation with communism “a struggle against the evil, satanical priestcraft of Lucifer. Truly it can be called a continuation of the war in heaven.” Communism, these men reasoned, was another manifestation of Satan’s plan, and a global threat to agency. Thus the Cold War itself was one battle in an eternal conflict, which began with Satan’s rebellion in Heaven.
By the end of the Cold War Skousen was largely forgotten among Mormons, while Ezra Taft Benson served a largely quiet and apolitical nine years as president of the church from 1985 to 1994. In those years, Mormons, and consequently the electorate of Utah, moved steadily to the political right. Bill Clinton came in third to George Bush and Ross Perot here in 1992. But Utah has not, to the disappointment of the Latter-day libertarians, become libertarian.
Mike Winder, the Mormon Republican mayor of the Salt Lake suburb West Valley City, told me he believes libertarianism is too fringe for most Mormons. He thinks its insistence on prioritizing liberty at the expense of all else comes into conflict with other aspects of Mormon theology. Moral issues, like prostitution or drug use, are foremost among these. But Winder argues that Mormonism also teaches that society has an obligation to care for the poor. “Mormons reading…the Sermon on the Mount see a need to take care of their fellow man,” Winder said. “While most Mormons feel the Democrats take that too far to the left, the libertarians perhaps take it too far to the right.”
Recent Republican primary results lend support to Winder’s theory. From the 1990s to the present, mainstream Republicans like Senator Orrin Hatch and Governor Mike Leavitt have routinely beaten back primary challengers from the right. But at the state’s 2010 Republican convention, incumbent Senator Bob Bennett fell to a conservative challenger. He was a mainstream Republican of distinguished heritage: his father had served as senator before him, and his grandfather was a president of the LDS Church, none of which saved him from accusations of moderation. The Tea Party claimed credit for Bennett’s defeat and certainly its fervor and organizational capacity aided Bennett’s chief opponent (and now senator) Mike Lee. But at a deeper level, Bennett’s loss was merely another skirmish in the local war for the soul of the Utah Republican party. This struggle has been going on for a very long time, and the Tea Party is merely the most recent vehicle for a wing of Utah conservatism that finds its roots in the writings of Benson and Skousen.
The Tea Party, with its libertarian yet religious tendencies, might be a natural home for Latter-day libertarians. But those I spoke to view the Tea Party with a mixture of appreciation and wariness, feelings that intensify when it comes to the Party’s founding father of sorts, the Mormon convert Glenn Beck, who led jeremiads against the Obama administration from the pulpit of his immensely popular Fox News talk show from 2009 to 2011. He endorsed Skousen’s writings on the air, and many Latter-day libertarians view his popularity as at least a beginning for their own crusades. But he also seemed emotionally erratic, lurching from endorsing investment in gold to tearfully warning of communists infiltrating the government. Boyack calls Beck a “loose cannon,” worrying that “I don’t see any stability or consistency in his positions.” Latter-day libertarians are impatient with politics as such, because they believe politics requires the steadying weight and moral consistency of theology. This means they have few true heroes. Even Cleon Skousen, Boyack admits, was a “constitutionalist” rather than a libertarian, because he supported moral legislation. When Boyack talks about his own distaste for the war on drugs or the moral language that supported American intervention in Iraq or Libya, he invokes the golden rule, arguing that true agency requires human beings to respect others’ choices. When he muses on economic policy, he rests his claims on what Mormons call the law of the harvest: that one reaps what one sows. In discussing Mitt Romney’s support for TARP, Boyack states: “Mitt Romney’s positions violate the law of the harvest, namely, that if people were making bad decisions they need to suffer the consequences of those decisions.”
Without agency, free choice and consequences, eternal progress grinds to a halt in the eyes of Latter-day libertarians. This supernatural struggle goes beyond the mundane back and forth of most politics. “We need to make sure that we’re on the right side of the battle today,” Boyack told me. “We need to understand what agency is, how Satan is still trying to destroy it, and we need to fight—not just defensively, but proactively. We need to help people understand.” Mitt Romney, perhaps, among them.
Matthew Bowman teaches religion at Hampden-Sydney College. He is the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.
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